“God has called them all home.” My stomach lurched as the president concluded his words at the interfaith vigil in Newtown, Conn. Make no mistake, I am profoundly grateful for the ways in which President Obama has led us through these dark, distressing days following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He has shown both parental emotion and presidential resolve. Times like these have called upon him not only to speak as president and parent but also to speak from the heart of his faith. He didn’t run to become pastor-in-chief, so I sympathize with him for having to find words for the unspeakable at such a traumatized and tender time.
So why was I so troubled when, after he read name after name of 6– and 7-year-old children, he concluded, “God has called them all home”? Why did I fear the emotional pain and theological confusion those words might stir?
The problem is the suggestion, albeit unintentional, that God was the catalyst, the actor, in determining when these children left the arms of their parents and ended up in God’s embrace alone. The problem is it suggests that God instigated, initiated, the movement of these small children away from their families forever.
Why bother splitting hairs over a phrase that the president—under the most difficult emotional circumstances—said, when he was doing his best to offer solace to those in that high school auditorium, while the rest of us looked on from our own homes? Because there is the danger that the words provide a comfort to those of us who cannot afford to be comforted.
I believe to my core that on that awful day God received every one of those children and adults into God’s embrace. But I don’t believe God called them home. I believe God’s intention and deepest desire was for those children to have many, many, many more homecomings of the ordinary sort before they ever knew a final, divine homecoming. I believe God wanted each of those children to continue to come home after school, dropping backpacks and coats—perhaps to the aggravation of parents who would ask for coats to be hung and backpacks stowed, until the horrific day when the parents yearned for such a simple aggravation. I believe God wanted those children to enjoy homecoming dances when they reached high school. I believe God intended for those children to later join the throngs of college freshman making their way home for winter break after a first semester away at school. I believe God looked forward to homecomings when those children, grown to adulthood, would bring fiancées to meet future in-laws and then new babies to be cradled by grandparents, and so much more. Yes, God welcomed those precious children home that terrible day last week, but no—God did not call them home.